As ocean empties, Senegal’s fishermen risk seas for new life in Europe

As ocean empties, Senegal’s fishermen risk seas for new life in Europe

Why We Wrote This

Messages to deter would-be migrants emphasize the danger of the journey. But as the pandemic’s economic fallout intensifies, thousands are willing to risk it. Sometimes more than once.

Shola Lawal

Fishermen set sail on Dec. 11, 2020, in Pointe Sarene, a fishing village in western Senegal. More and more fishers are leaving Senegal because they say it is increasingly difficult to catch much even after spending days at sea.


January 14, 2021

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At 10 a.m. on a weekday, the beach in Pointe Sarène, Senegal, is unnaturally quiet, with just a few fishermen out working. There’s rarely a good catch these days, points out Ababacar Mbaye, a father of five. For years, fishermen have complained of depleted stocks due to overfishing, in part by foreign trawlers.

Many of the fish are bound for Europe. And so, too, are thousands of migrants setting out for Spain’s Canary Islands. Some 20,000 migrants have arrived this year alone, as the pandemic deals financial blows to already struggling areas. 

More than 500 people are reported to have died on the risky Atlantic route. Mr. Mbaye himself set off for the Canaries, only to have a storm stop his journey in Mauritania. But despite the dangers, he’s hoping to try again.

“When we fishermen leave, it is because we can no longer live from our boats,” he says, dressed in a traditional gray caftan embroidered in white lace. “People should realize that what you’re going through is making you desperate.”

Pointe Sarène, Senegal

The ghosts often seemed to come after six in the evening. From where he sat in the cramped boat, Ababacar Mbaye watched the minds of the men with whom he had left the coast of Senegal start to run mad, the effect of seeing nothing but miles of sea for days and hearing only the waves.

One man said he saw his home in the sea. Another was sure ghosts were on the boat. Both had to be tied down to keep them from jumping overboard. A fisherman, Mr. Mbaye is no stranger to the sea, but even he felt the strain after days without food. It was the thought of a better life in Europe that kept the father of five’s hopes up.

But after a week at sea, just as the boat was closing in on Spain’s Canary Islands, violent winds forced the men to dock in a Mauritanian village, their mission a failed one. Of the 88 who had boarded, 17 died from hunger, including two young boys who lived close to Mr. Mbaye’s home.

That was in November. Now, he wants to try again.

“When we fishermen leave, it is because we can no longer live from our boats,” explains Mr. Mbaye, dressed in a traditional gray caftan embroidered in white lace, as he stands on the beach in the western Senegal village of Pointe Sarène. “When you go to sea, you witness someone dying, you hold your friends in your lap as they are dying and you come back and try again. People should realize that what you’re going through is making you desperate.”

Is this America? A breach in peaceful transition of power.

Mr. Mbaye is one of thousands of Africans to brave Atlantic voyages in recent months, seeking a better life abroad as the COVID-19 pandemic batters livelihoods at home. More and more aim for the Canary Islands, a one-week journey away. For West Africans, the territory halfway between Senegal and mainland Spain is Europe’s closest foothold.

Despite fears about weak health care, COVID-19 rates have been low across the continent. Most African countries were swift to act, shutting down borders and businesses. But the resulting market downturns have dealt severe blows, accelerating migration rates even further – especially among workers in Senegal’s fisheries sector, which employs about 1 in 6 workers.

Shola Lawal

Ababacar Mbaye, photographed in Pointe Sarene, Senegal, in December, tried to reach the Canary Islands in November. He barely survived, but the father of five says he’s willing to try the perilous voyage again.

For years, fishermen have complained of depleted stocks due to overfishing, in part by foreign trawlers. Tons of the fish harvested in these waters are bound for some of the same countries migrants now risk their lives to reach. Last spring, pandemic lockdowns cut his income so badly that it became the final straw, Mr. Mbaye says, pushing him to exile himself or die trying.

The story is similar across the continent. According to the World Bank, 45% of households in sub-Saharan Africa report being worried about hunger, in a region where nearly 250 million already faced food insecurity due to a cocktail of conflict, climate shocks, and locusts.

Now, West Africans are arriving in the Canaries in numbers that stun experts. The Atlantic migration route is “the deadliest” because of the distance and turbulent seas, according to Michele Bombassei, who works for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the Senegalese capital, Dakar. Since 2006, most migrants have taken their chances on the Mediterranean, but as the pandemic has shut land borders, closing off access to departure ports in Libya and elsewhere, the numbers taking to the Atlantic Ocean have skyrocketed.

About 20,000 migrants arrived in the Canary Islands in 2020, and more than 500 are reported to have died at sea.

Nothing to do in Pointe Sarène

Some of those who make it to the Canaries leave from Senegal’s Pointe Sarène, the breezy fishing village two hours south of Dakar, where the sea laps lazily at the sandy shore and children play in the streets all day.

At 10 a.m. on a weekday, the beach is unnaturally quiet. The docks have reopened as COVID-19 restrictions ease, but only a few young fishermen are out working. There’s rarely a good catch these days, Mr. Mbaye points out, crouching on the beach.

Five or six years ago, “we would take a little ride and we would catch enough fish to provide for our family and sell,” says Momodou Ngom, a friend of Mr. Mbaye’s who traveled beside him on the failed bid to reach Spain. “Now you see fishermen at sea for three days and you cannot even sell something worth 5,000 CFA [$9].”

The pair planned to get jobs in agriculture or on construction sites in Spain, where they could easily make 10 times their usual income, friends who had migrated told them. Economic reasons may be uppermost in the minds of the predominantly young men who make the dangerous journey, but they are not the only reasons, Mr. Bombassei of the IOM says.

“We tend to think these migrants leave because they don’t have anything, but that idea needs to be adjusted. These are not the wealthiest people but they are also not the poorest,” Mr. Bombassei says. “In some communities, the social status of those who have refused to migrate is so affected that they find it difficult to find a wife because the women don’t consider them respectable.”

Men have to take opportunities to help their families, says Mr. Mbaye’s sister Fatou, who sells fish at the Pointe Sarène market. Women are starting to join expeditions too, she adds. Why shouldn’t the men go?

Back to sea

Before Mr. Mbaye and his friend left in November, they sold their fishing boats to pay the smugglers’ 350,000 CFA ($650) fee. They boarded dug-out canoes, joining a bigger boat far out at sea to avoid Senegalese and Spanish naval patrol boats.

That migrants should be hounded by surveillance ships from Europe is painfully ironic, residents of Pointe Sarène say, because foreign trawlers have contributed to depleting their waters.

For two decades, the European Union has signed fishing deals with Senegal, and France and Spain are allowed to harvest thousands of tons of tuna and hake from Senegalese waters. And for almost as long, since 2006, Senegal has had agreements with Spain to enforce maritime controls and reduce migrant numbers.

Although the protocol signed claims to advocate sustainable fishing and protect local fishermen, sea activists have complained of massive illegal fishing in West African waters by Asian and European trawlers.

Shola Lawal

Mutala Cisse lost his son to the sea a few years ago, when he tried to migrate to Europe. But he says he cannot discourage young men from leaving, as there is little opportunity in Point Sarene.

Mutala Cisse, who is 60, says he can’t retire because he lost his son to the sea route a few years ago. But young men have little choice, he adds. “I’d like to tell these young men to stay and work but there’s nothing to do,” Mr. Cisse says. “I want the government to come and help them.”

There is little local authorities can do about international fisheries treaties, says Mor Fassa Ndiaye, a local government official. And though his office has carried out several campaigns about the dangers of journeying north by sea, numbers keep surging, he says, because migrants “are calling each other to say, ‘They may need workers in Spain. See how they have been affected [by COVID-19]. They may need more workers now so let’s go.’”

Some of the migrants embarking on the perilous journey are heartbreakingly young. Fourteen-year-old Doudou died en route for the Canaries last October; in response, a judge sentenced Doudou’s father, along with two others, to a two-year jail term for sending their underage kids on the turbulent voyage. Authorities hope the sentencing will deter other families from taking the same steps.

President Macky Sall has launched several initiatives to distribute money and food to people impacted by the lockdown, and his government has refused to allow more Chinese fishing trawlers to operate in Senegalese waters. But depleted fisheries and inadequate education and job opportunities will keep pushing men like Mr. Mbaye to migrate illegally, Mr. Bombassei says.

What’s more, “there are few ways for West Africans without contacts in Europe” to migrate legally, he adds. European countries should consider migration more positively, he says, taking account of the role that migrants’ remittances play in spurring local development in their home countries.

In November, Senegalese officials met the Spanish foreign minister to discuss the launch of employment schemes to allow more Senegalese to migrate legally. That gives him some hope, Mr. Mbaye says, but since his return, shame has pressed in from all sides.

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When he left, villagers awaited news that he had reached Europe. Now he is mocked, he says, the mark of failure permanently stamped on him. His options have gotten even slimmer because he is cash-strapped, but once he gathers some money, he wants to try again.

“I am praying that things get better,” Mr. Mbaye says. “If they do I will settle here, but if they don’t, I am nowhere near scared, because I’ve been at sea all my life.”

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